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'Merry Christmas!' I Mean ‘Happy Holidays!’ Oh, Just Have A Nice Day

Q: Every year, the holiday season seems to get more stressful. On the one hand, I have a couple of employees who want to make everything about Christ. They insist on wishing everyone, including our customers, a merry Christmas rather than happy holidays or not saying anything.

They claim that saying “happy holidays” denies their faith by taking “Christ” out of Christmas. I have no reason to disbelieve their conviction, but they seem to overdo it, making it more like a political battleground than a joyous celebration.

On the other hand, I have employees who want there to be no mention of Christ. At our traditional end-of-the-year employee holiday party, the staff sings songs they've selected. They sing winter songs like “Let It Snow,” and religious songs like “Away in a Manger.” A couple of employees have complained that some of the religious songs are offensive because they do not believe in Jesus Christ. They want me to ban the mention of Christ in the workplace. How do I keep everyone happy? Any words of wisdom?

A: Our society has changed quite a bit over the last 30 years. People have become more vocal about whether the holiday season surrounding December 25, traditionally known as Christmas, is a religious or secular observance. In this country, it is both. Some people view the holiday season as a time to commemorate the birth of Christ, with varying levels of enthusiasm. Others celebrate Hanukkah, and in some years, it is also the time of Ramadan. Some people don't celebrate anything at all. For them, the time around December 25 is nothing more than a winter vacation.
These different perspectives often collide in the workplace. The answer to how you manage these conflicts between employees with varying belief systems is not easy, nor is there a one-size-fits-all definitive answer. The law says you must accommodate an employee's religious beliefs, practices, and observances if the beliefs are sincerely held and the accommodation poses no undue hardship on business operations. Additionally, you must allow religious expression to the same extent that you allow other types of personal expression that are not religious in nature.
You must accommodate an employee's sincerely held religious belief of celebrating the birth of Christ by saying “Merry Christmas” unless you can establish that the accommodation presents an undue hardship. What is an undue hardship? In one case, a court looked at employees who insisted on making religious statements, such as “God bless you,” to customers. The court said that when interactions are fleeting and spontaneous and the employee isn't attempting to proselytize to customers, allowing the statement is not an undue hardship, even if some find it bothersome or disruptive of a routine operation.
General resentment by coworkers is not an undue hardship. Thus, you should not prohibit the use of “Merry Christmas.” However, if an employee tells you he is offended by the greeting, you can tell the offending employee to refrain from directing any seasonal greetings at the complaining coworker. Encouraging all employees to appreciate different perspectives can only enhance positive employee relations. On the flip side, you cannot require employees to greet customers with “Merry Christmas.”
From your question, it appears that singing at the holiday party is voluntary and participation is not a job requirement. The songs are mixed with secular or winter songs and are not selected by management. Nothing requires that you ban all whispers of religion or its symbols from the workplace, and banning all Christmas carols to accommodate a few employees would be extreme. If a few employees are offended, you can encourage them to excuse themselves during that portion of the party. Explain to them that Christmas carols are one of the many different ways individuals express their holiday cheer. The answer would be different if participation in the religious singing was required by management or if the prevailing theme of the party was overtly religious. In that case, you might be imposing religion on employees, which is bound to cause trouble.

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Don Berner, the Labor Law, OSHA, & Immigration Law Guy
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Jason Lacey, the Employee Benefits Guy
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